The iconic Charlie Chaplin, as the Little Tramp, does it again in the 1936 film, MODERN TIMES, a commentary on the effects of the American people during the Great Depression. Although known for his comedy, Chaplin took on a serious role as a filmmaker and artist by interpreting the living and working situations of many individuals as they struggled through the 1930s. For some, the perfect comedic timing that leaves audiences in stiches may mask the richness within the film. In the opening shots where he compares people to cattle by juxtaposing shots of each being herded along indicates an unexpected depth beneath the silly hijinks. Here Chaplin adapts to the advancement of cinematic grammar, in what is perhaps a direct response to the filmic language utilized by the likes of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, a ‘poet of the people,’ who also captured the struggle of the working class in his films.
Films made during a time without sound (even though MODERN TIMES had added sound effects), allowed the subtly and creativity in Chaplin’s performance to shine through. There is fluidity to Chaplin’s performances that challenge the artistry and professionalism of what makes a great screen actor. From his signature duck-footed walk, to the flick of his eyebrows, he makes each shot come to life. As a director, he also allows for the action in each scene to unfold; he allows the scene to breathe within the frame with the use of wide, lingering shots.
The Little Tramp is often a victim of circumstance, one we can all join in at laughing at. He takes every situation at face value, like being the guinea pig to try out the bosses’ new innovation. He also has a way of flipping the table on normal or sane actions, like when he willingly goes to jail, and decides that it is much more comfortable than the brutality of roaming the streets houseless and jobless. Chaplin endured a childhood of poverty, as reflected in the authentic experiences and backdrop within his films. Through his humor, it seems that Chaplin strove for the support of the audience’s laughter, adding a psychological level to his films. Because of this, I would not categorize Chaplin’s comedy as slapstick. He was ahead of his time artistically, as his presence suggests an understanding of what the viewer would naturally see unfolding in a situation. His supporting actors compliment the film, fitting in quite normally into the hilarious world of the Little Tramp.
Competing with other great comedians of the time, such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, the genre of comedy was elevated from burlesque performance, to a much more subtle and individualized approach. When sound became the newest technical advancement in the film industry, another evolution took place. Verbal jokes became the new standard in comedy as the genre moved away from the silent slapstick of Chaplin and Buster Keaton into the Talkie era. As a result, the playful Little Tramp and Keaton’s stone face became passé in the world of talking pictures. However, I would have to say that some of my favorite films of the silent era are the comedic films of Chaplin and Keaton. There is a comedic sensibility in these filmmakers’ works that is relatable, which is ultimately the backbone to any humor. These filmmakers are pioneers of the genre, for they were experimenting with the physical space of a moving picture, and also taking on the responsibility of a performer and director. Some of the great and most memorable films, like those of Chaplin, Welles, or even Allen, stem from those multi-talented individuals. They may not be a triple-threat when it comes to singing, dancing, and performing on stage, but they are a triple-threat of the screen: writing, directing, and performing. There is a certain amount of selflessness and courage that goes into taking control, and creating a world existent only in one’s own head.
“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”
– Charlie Chaplin